Monday, March 30, 2015

alt-J at Madison Square Garden

Gus Unger-Hamilton & Joe Newman
Gwil Sainsbury (guitar/bass), Joe Newman (guitar/lead vocals), Gus Unger-Hamilton (keyboards/vocals) and Thom Green (drums) met in 2007 at their university in Leeds, England. Forming a soft indie rock band, they first called themselves Daljit Dhaliwal and then Films, until the band settled on the name alt-J (also known as , the symbol produced by pressing "alt" and "j" on older Mac keyboards). After graduating, the four musicians moved to Cambridge, where they claimed Jobseeker's Allowance, and dedicated two years to composing, rehearsing and performing local gigs. The band's debut album, An Awesome Wave, won both the 2012 British Mercury Prize and Album of the Year at the Ivor Novello Awards. Sainsbury amicably departed the band in early 2014, leaving alt-J as a trio. A second album, This Is All Yours, was released on September 22, 2014.

Headlining Madison Square Garden tonight after only two albums, alt-J's rapid ascent remains as mysterious as the band's lyrics and musical arrangements. With a repertoire limited to two albums, the set list produced no surprises. Engulfed in frequently recurring fog and made miniscule by a huge back screen projecting moving geometric shapes, colors and images, the mostly obscured band opened with "Hunger of the Pine." It would be several songs before the musicians could be clearly seen. Supported by Cameron Knight on guitar, bass and samples, alt-J played a dreamy and complex music that drew from folk melodies and harmonies but was injected with angular guitar breaks and atmospheric synthesizer fills. The intrigue was built in how all this weaved in and out of odd time signatures, off-kilter syncopations and contrapuntal arrangements. Comparisons could be made to Radiohead and mid-period Pink Floyd, yet alt-J's music was perhaps even more eccentric. Yet while the music and the video projection seemed composed of many moving parts, this could not be said for the static musicians, who barely moved; were it not for the drummer's arms flying around the drum kit, the front of the stage looked like a still photograph for the entire 80-minute show. The bright back lights made it hard for most of the audience to see the performers anyway. There was no rock star posing here, just inventive music.

Visit alt-J at